The Crown Marketplace – 2018 Outlook

2018 will be a critical year for the UK’s central government procurement hub, Crown Commercial Service. We might say that about every year, I suppose, but this does feel like a big one.

Their CEO, Malcolm Harrison, having taken over formally in November 2016, is through any honeymoon period he might have had. Although it might not have felt like this at the time, he got a relatively easy ride from the Public Accounts Committee in early 2017 because he was new in the role. He is on a three year contract, we believe, so 2018 is the vital year for him personally (no pressure, Malcom!).

The same applies to most of his senior team who are also fairly new and need to make their mark this year. Then we have some who aren’t so recently appointed, but whose contribution in 2018 is at least as important. We’re thinking of Matt Denham in particular, as the lead for the Crown Marketplace initiative.

We wrote here about that work, and you may remember that information given to the potential bidders suggested that an OJEU advertisement would be launched “in the Autumn”. Now not even the finest Sir Humphrey civil service wordsmithing can make January into “autumn”, so that target has been missed.

However, we wonder if that is down to some more fundamental rethinking, rather than just the usual delays we see in the bureaucracy around central government – Treasury approvals, for instance. Certainly, our intelligence from the market suggested some lack of enthusiasm for at least some of the CCS ideas. The franchise-type option for instance, where providers would build the marketplace at their own risk and then must “sell it” to clients to make their money, has clearly not been received with much enthusiasm. Equally, a government-funded programme might look risky to the accountants, with the prospect of managing both ground-breaking technology as well as significant change-management challenges.

While the debates about the envisioned mega-Marketplace have raged, CCS has been getting on with several pilots, the most successful of which has been the IT products platform. So perhaps that might suggest a way forward for CCS? Category-specific solutions clearly can work, even if implementing those is not a trivial matter.

But that approach has the advantage of allowing experimentation and using different tools appropriately – to be successful, a “marketplace” for management consulting services is for instance obviously going to need a different approach from one that handles stationery.

We also come back to the fact that no country in the world has implemented anything quite like the Crown Marketplace vision. While it would be great if the UK could become that global leader, success is by no means guaranteed, as much because of those issues of change management (getting the devolved and diverse public sector to use any system, for instance) as the tech. As one informed source said to me, “South Korea has probably come the closest to this model. But in that country, when the government tells the public sector to do something, they all tend to do it. Somehow that doesn’t happen here!”

That’s very true, and if CCS has realised that getting full public sector buy-in in the UK (to anything) is not just like herding cats, it’s equivalent to herding a whole Ark-full of different beasts, then a more pragmatic and less visionary approach to procurement technology might just be sensible.

Voices (5)

  1. TLDP:

    You mean Matt Denham, not John Denham!

    1. Nancy Clinton:

      yes we do – thanks for spotting – John is someone we used to work with! – slip of the pen/keyboard!

  2. Charlie Middleton:

    You indicate that the IT products platform has been successful, and CCS often claims that G-Cloud has been a huge success due to the volume of business put through it. Actually G-Cloud has been a “success” as it has been virtually unregulated and CCS has turned a blind eye to the abuse of it, especially lot 4 which was supposed to be for support for implementing Cloud but which was generally used for services that had nothing to do with Cloud. For instance, in the cash-strapped NHS, NHS Connecting for Health, Calderdale and Huddersfield NHS Trust and Monitor have between them spent £35m on “specialist Cloud services” but actually only purchased £21,000 of “real” Cloud services. Over 75% of G-Cloud services have been through the “general” (and abused) lot 4.

    Also marketplaces are often anti-competitive unless you are buying generic services, and they just allow customers to buy from their mates rather than seeking competitive tenders from different suppliers. So in the professional services sphere, they just don’t work.

    1. Peter Smith:

      Charlie, I have some sympathy for your view and indeed have written about the abuses of G-cloud which many ignore – see here http://spendmatters.com/uk/digital-marketplace-g-cloud-store-how-much-spend-is-illegal-or-inappropriate/ I continue to be worried that in the understandable drive to give buyers “what they want” CCS is perhaps turning a blind eye to the “buying from their mates” approach as you put it. There was a lot of that back in the 1990s when I worked in government – budget holders just selecting firms from frameworks without any rigour – and we wouldn’t want to go back to that, would we?!

  3. Michael Thornton:

    Over the last year I’ve met with quite a few people who are working on this programme, both procurement and change people. One thing I have noticed is that almost everyone working on it is quite positive and seem to think it’s going to be a success, which is great for CCS given it’s track record.

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